UK Riots and Cuts to Public Universities: Any Connection?
Why did it happen and how to avoid it happening again? These are the questions that keep coming up about the riots in London and cities throughout England that started last weekend. While emphatically stating that there is “no justification for the violence, looting, and theft that has taken place in some English cities this week,” David M.A. Green, professor of economics and vice chancellor at the University of Worcester, in England, asks if there’s a connection between the riots and the drastic cuts to British universities, to educational opportunities:
Is there any connection between these riots and the big cuts to public-university support, the student protests at the end of 2010, and the sharp rise in tuition fees set to start in 2012? Just one. England appears to have turned its back on its young people.
Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Green explains specifically how he sees the connection:
Historically high youth unemployment, the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which supported students at the equivalent of community colleges, and the impending sharp hike in university tuition fees, combine together to give the impression that young people have few opportunities. This impression is supported by financial reality. Many young people feel that they have little to hope for against a backdrop of sharp reductions in university and college financing, job losses, companies going bust, and Europe on the brink of financial meltdown all in the name of the reduction of debts that they did nothing to accumulate. At the same time, they see the “greed is good” mantra exercised by those with power—from members of Parliament who abused their expenses to bankers who collected huge salaries and bonuses as the firms they led failed and bankrupted much of the economy.
A whole generation from less-privileged backgrounds has been robbed of the life chances anyone should be entitled. It is this situation, combined with the promotion of “celebrity culture” as a form of escapism, that has led to the rise of the GMQ gangs (Get Money Quick) and the prizing of designer clothes and shoes above education and regular employment. When the roots of alienation are deep, we are rightly appalled, but not so very surprised, to see children as young as 11 involved in the rioting. [my emphases in italics]
Green also argues that “a combination of better values, discipline, education, opportunity, and inclusion” is needed to prevent further riots. “Young people need to have something positive and attainable for which to aim,” he says. He doesn’t specify what he means by “educational opportunities” that might help this lost generation but, from his pointing out of the “sharp hike” in tuition fees and the cutting of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, it seems that one thing would be affordable, accessible education for those from less-advantaged backgrounds.
In the US, many students now expect to go into debt to get a college degree, bargaining that the results will be worth it and they indeed are. Study after study makes it all too clear that higher lifetime earnings result even from attending some years of college. By not creating viable educational opportunities for all students, and especially those from lower-income backgrounds, young persons such as those who participated in the riots are, as Green writes, effectively shut out of those “life chances” to which “anyone should be entitled.”
The response to the violence and criminality has to go beyond “being tough.” This point of Green’s echoes a point made by former New York and Los Angeles police chief William Bratton, who has been hired as Prime Minister David Cameron’s new crime adviser (to the deep chagrin of the British police). Bratton has stated that communities cannot “arrest their way out” of violence and crime and must address underlying causes including racial tensions. Similarly, Labour leader Ed Milliband has said that what to do in the aftermath of the rioting is “very complex”:
“I think we need to avoid simplistic explanations either from the left or from the right, either saying it is criminality pure and simple and that is the end of the story or saying it is all about society and it is just that there are not enough youth services.”
Again, there is no excuse for the violence and crime that have gripped cities in the UK. But so far the response to the riots has been punitive measures such as Cameron’s proposal to evict rioters and their families from government-subsidized housing. Senior Liberal Democrats have been more and more at odds with the Tories, their coalition partners, by asserting that such “kneejerk” reactions must end and warning that “stripping those involved of their benefits could worsen crime on the streets.” Some of those arrested in the riots are college students: There’s no question that they’ve erred seriously and tragically. But does this mean that all educational opportunities are closed to them?
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